DALTON, Ga. — More than 10 years after the launch of the Georgia Civil War Heritage Trails project, leaders say “unreasonable” requirements from the U.S. Department of Transportation have bogged down the process.
“Everything we’ve tried to do has hit a brick wall,” said Kathryn Sellers, who served as chairwoman of the Georgia Civil War Heritage Trails board for its first six years and is still a board member. “The entire project has been made difficult by all the requirements and, in our minds, they are unreasonable requirements.”
So far, about 300 trailblazer signs and fewer than 20 interpretive markers have been put up in six Georgia regions. Most of the signs placed so far mark the Atlanta campaign in Northwest Georgia and the March to the Sea in the central part of the state.
The program’s goal is to place about 2,000 trailblazer signs and 150 markers, primarily paid for with federal grants.
The U.S. Department of Transportation requires an environmental report, a historical preservation report and engineering drawing, a land survey and an appraisal for each small plot of land where the interpretive markers will be placed. In addition, all the paperwork must be completed at each site before federal money to pay for any of the markers can be used, Sellers said.
“It is just ridiculous — we’ve been inundated by micromanagement,” Sellers said. “They are asking us for the same requirements that they would require for any industrial site or renovation of a building. This is a 4-by-4 [foot] piece of land. It is a very different project, and we have not been able to understand why the rules can’t be relaxed.”
By comparison, Tennessee launched its Civil War Trails program in 2008 and, three years later, has placed 213 interpretive markers, with about five trailblazer signs placed for each marker.
Sellers said officials are using a more streamlined process in Tennessee, which is overseen by a different regional office.
However, federal officials say the federal requirements are the same in every state, but each state transportation agency has its own environmental review process that could be different.
Kelly Hanahan, spokeswoman for the Federal Highway Administration that oversees the grants, declined to comment on possible differences in how Georgia and Tennessee handle the grant requirements. She said any differences would be at the state level.
Georgia Department of Transportation officials did not respond to several messages on Friday.
The nonprofit Georgia Civil War Heritage Trails group launched in 2000 and echoes the Civil War Trails project that started in Virginia and has spread to five states, including Tennessee. The Georgia group planned to expand to Alabama and South Carolina once the Georgia markers were mostly finished.
The interpretive markers describe the war’s impact, focusing stories on the communities rather than the battles that were fought. The markers highlight and preserve little-known historical events and promote tourism to the states and into smaller communities, the groups say.
In Tennessee, the Civil War Trails map is the most-requested brochure in the state’s travel centers, according to Patricia Gray, research development coordinator for the Tennessee Department of Tourism Development.
In Georgia, the plan was to have most of the markers completed by this year, the 150th anniversary of the war’s beginning.
The group has been awarded more than $1 million in federal transportation enhancement grants, Executive Director Steven Longcrier said. Some 90 percent is to be spent to buy and place the signs after federal requirements are met.
The Georgia group has had to raise private money to pay for the studies and paperwork, including more than $200,000 for engineering work.
“The frustration level is high for all the entities involved, particularly the local groups who have put their money in this for as long as eight years,” Sellers said.
Gray, who helped on the project in Tennessee, said Department of Tourism Development head Susan Whitaker sat down with the state Department of Transportation and worked out a plan for the project. The project meets all federal DOT requirements, and the state DOT office also approves each site, but communities work with the Department of Tourism.
“We kind of created a unique project to work with all the communities to get these markers placed,” Gray said. “There is just one application the communities have to fill out and everything is done through our office, with the DOT’s approval.”
The process includes an environmental clearance, road right-of-way approval and compliance with disability laws, she said, but she is not sure what other information the state DOT collects.
Sellers said her group unsuccessfully sought help from state and federal lawmakers to see if any of the requirements could be changed.
So far, all the markers that have been placed, such as one at Crawfish Spring in Chickamauga, Ga., have been paid for by private or local funds.
Local groups that contributed part of the money for a marker have seen their dollars tied up for years, too, waiting until the federal money can be used.
“It’s been a nightmare; it shouldn’t have taken this long,” Whitfield County Commission Chairman Mike Babb said.
Whitfield County served as the sponsoring government for the federal grant and has been closely involved with the project since the beginning.
John Culpepper, chairman for the state’s Civil War Commission and city manager in Chickamauga, said his city agreed to pay 100 percent of the money for its marker so it could be placed.
“I don’t know what obstacles they’ve run up against, but they are certainly stuck in the mud somewhere,” Culpepper said.
The good news for the Georgia group is that much of the groundwork has been done in the last 10 years and the project will pick up speed over the next year. Two markers are scheduled to be placed in Whitfield County within a few months. By next year, many more should be popping up over the state.
“This has taken a while longer than any of us thought it would, but the pace is about to pick up,” Longcrier said. “The Civil War is the biggest event the state of Georgia has ever experienced, and these are personal stories from communities who were affected.”
Contact staff writer Mariann Martin at email@example.com or 706-980-5824.
Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...